The Chinese have a very interesting device in controlling political relations. They let everyone know that unless they are treated with what they consider a full appreciation of the righteousness of their state — and in consequence their bargaining position — they hold that they and their nation have been insulted.
This reaction can range from mere pique to full-blown outrage. Prime Minister Wen Jiabao of China most undiplomatically and antagonistically attacked the UK government of his host, PM David Cameron, during a joint press conference in London. The issue of such great importance to comrade Wen was last year’s statement by Cameron during his own Beijing visit in which he criticized China’s human rights policy. The clear implication of Wen’s remarks was that this was none of Britain’s affair and that this type of “interference” could impede China/UK trade relations.
This is hardly a new stance by the still one party communist system that rules China and insists the rest of the world treat their exploitation of the Chinese people as strictly an internal matter. Wen Jiabao’s spokesman made clear that he preferred the demeanor of France, Germany and Italy — nations that have carefully avoided any similar condemnation and thus would benefit commercially in their dealings with Beijing.
It has been suggested that the Chinese were especially upset over the fact that David Cameron decided to “attack” Chinese governmental handling of human rights issues while on his visit to their country. Cameron’s statement was deemed “personally insulting to all Chinese,” as one Chinese diplomat explained. The Chinese have taken pains to emphasize that the “honorable and respectful” treatment of Chinese matters will result in a positive reaction from Beijing on all affairs.
In other words, the ancient Chinese custom of showing obeisance or deference, i.e. kowtow, continues to this day. In contemporary terms the Chinese communist government just does not accept what they judge to be criticism in any form from foreign officials — or even journalists. This restriction includes everything from China’s perceived “natural” borders (Tibet, Xinjiang, Taiwan, South China Sea) to any adverse comment on social matters. Political life of the Chinese is virtually sacrosanct.
The award of the Nobel Peace Prize last year to the imprisoned Liu Xiabo, the longtime advocate for peaceful democratic change, was characterized by the Chinese Foreign Ministry as an “obscenity,” and threatened “retaliation” against Norway. Some said the detention of famed artist Ai Weiwei after he expressed disagreement with the government’s human rights policy was a follow-up to Beijing’s reaction to the Liu Xiabo affair. Art-world pressure eventually resulted in his release after three months, even though he remains under indictment for tax evasion. Making an example of the outspoken artist was an essential display of power by Beijing’s political security agency and a warning to other home-grown critics.
It’s amazing how effective this imperious manner has been in disciplining Western governments in their dealings with Beijing. Other Asian countries, such as Pakistan, have been very successful in currying favor with China (in spite of the fact that China has a long record of exploiting its Moslem minorities). The strong anti-US reaction in Pakistan for supposedly “waging war on Islam” apparently is not applied equally to the Chinese. It is now convenient for Islamic radicals to play the “enemy of my enemy is my friend” line.
Of course the history of the West toward China is marked by the scars of past wounds and attempts at foreign domination during the 19th and early 20th centuries — a fact that Beijing’s representatives arrange to bring up at almost every international conference. By any valuation, however, this is ancient history. It certainly doesn’t justify the outrage generated self-servingly by a regime in the act of continued subjugation of its people.
The insistence by Chinese officialdom on acceptance of all aspects of their policies may not appear that much different than other countries. But that is the practice of diplomatic courtesy not political approval. They might want to, but they can’t deny freedom of expression to the rest of the world. For the prime minister of China to give what the Financial Times referred to as “a public dressing down” to his host, the British PM, in front of the press at 10 Downing Street occurred because of China’s refusal to accept international criticism of its patently totalitarian actions dealing with the civil rights of its citizens.
China retains the sense of superiority that existed throughout its imperial dynasties. David Cameron brought up the issue of China’s human rights abuses publicly during his Beijing visit and the Chinese PM now has sought to punish him and the UK — as well as provide a warning to other politicians and countries that would seek to do the same. Mr. Wen Jiabao’s leverage is a threat to restrict trade. Britain needs that commerce, and for its prime minister to speak out for human rights in spite of the danger of receiving an economic blow may not be wise in business terms. But it does remind us of the guiding role Britain has played in the evolution of the protection of individual rights — and that these rights are inalienable.
Carry on, Cameron. Nothing is worth letting you and Britain be muzzled by the world’s largest communist state. It’s a lesson to be well learned also by the current Washington administration.
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